Already it’s clear that the Presidential election of 2004 is shaping up to be a referendum — of Americans — on the legitimacy of American power. When you look at the position staked out by the Democratic candidates, even that of the more hawkish among them, you notice the curious fact that they are unanimous that the exercise of that power — with which, after all, they themselves are asking to be entrusted — is ipso facto illegitimate when it has not been subjected to the restraints that other countries would impose on it, no matter what their reason for opposing it. Not only are they saying that President Bush can’t be trusted with it, they are saying they can’t be trusted with it. You’ve got to wonder how appealing a statement like that is going to be with the general public.
Put like that, it does seem curious, does it not? Yet it can be explained by a look at the core constituency of the Democratic Party since George McGovern turned it into the mistrust-America party 32 years ago. Just as the late-twentieth-century Republicans were never able to live down the Goldwater legacy but only to find standard-bearers who could broaden the party’s appeal without repudiating that legacy, so the Democrats have never to this day overcome their identification as the anti-war party they were in 1972. Like Nixon and Reagan, Carter and Clinton were able to overcome the effects of such branding only to the extent of making it seem briefly tolerable given the public’s sense of national priorities when they were elected. But Clinton was still McGovernite au fond. No one can imagine someone in the administration of John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson saying: “I don’t talk to the military.” Now it’s hard to imagine any Democratic administration that wouldn’t be crawling with such people.
There are certain core constituencies that any political party must avoid offending at almost any cost. The Democrats have more of them than the Republicans. They include blacks, activist women and public sector unions, for example — which is why none of the Democratic candidates will so much as hint that he might have doubts about affirmative action or abortion or opposing educational vouchers. One of these Democratic constituencies is the anti-war left, those whose political consciousness was formed during the Vietnam war. Sometimes called the “Blame America First” crowd, they are as implacable and as necessary as any of the other Democrat constituencies, and they are by nature deeply suspicious not only of the Pentagon and the projection of American power abroad but of all forms of behavior that they would describe as “militaristic.”
I wouldn’t dream of denying that Democratic fury over the 2000 election is a lot of the reason for their visceral hatred of George W. Bush. But there is another reason for that hatred too. It is that Bush never learned the lessons of Vietnam, first and foremost of which in their view was that America had no “right” to impose her will on the rest of the world. We were the global bad citizen during the Vietnam era, and we can never have done atoning for it. Now not only are we doing it again, as they see it, but our President is utterly unashamed of doing it. That’s why the charge of “cockiness” from those on the left has become so routine (see coverage of the State of the Union address passim) — and why nothing since the wars of 9/11 began has infuriated them more than President Bush’s saying to the al-Qaeda terrorists: “Bring it on!”
It may seem curious, then, that this kind of masculine vaunting, left over from the days of unashamed “militarism” before Vietnam, has excited no more comment than it has in the mouth of Senator John Kerry. Again and again he has echoed the President’s words, but turned them on the President himself. Why do the crowds at Kerry’s rallies find such macho posturing abhorrent when Bush does it, while at the same time eating it up from their man? The left seems to want to have it both ways. The very dare-and-counterdare characteristic of masculine honor-talk is on the one hand illegitimate, and a relic of outmoded ways of thought. But where it is convenient, these things may be brought back and indulged in with relish, if it is the “right-wing” honor culture they are daring and vaunting against.
It’s the paradox pointed to by George Will when he writes that “Democrats who are serious about the candidates’ electability understand that seriousness requires a retreat from the feminization of politics.” On the one hand, that is, we know that the Democrats are the mommy party, and they hate and loathe all the masculine and military values that the Republicans are not sorry to try to make their own. On the other hand, at some level they know that to be electable they have to show a masculine willingness to get tough if necessary . . .
That may be why Democrats seem at times to be even more willing than the Republicans to swoon over guys like Kerry who have a fist-full of medals. Of course Kerry threw away his medals. Except that he didn’t. He pretended to throw them away during a Vietnam War protest but secretly kept them and, after it was once again popular to have served in Vietnam, mounted them on his wall. In Kerry’s ambivalence about his own service in Vietnam, we see the ambivalence of his party towards American power. Unless he, or whoever the Democrats nominate, gets better about hiding that ambivalence, I can’t see the American people entrusting him with that power.